Editorial: Grayling's dig at charities needs putting in context

Not all criticism of a government should be construed as politically motivated, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

In 2012, the theme was charities stuffed with Labourites; last year, it was the excessive salaries of charity chief executives; this year, it’s charities opposing the government (because they’re stuffed with Labourites). Credit for consistency and persistence, if nothing else, should go to the right-wing press and the minority of Conservative MPs they wind up from time to time – especially in August – for what have become ritual criticisms of the voluntary sector.

A fresh dimension this time around was that the prime mover was a Cabinet minister, the justice secretary Chris Grayling, writing in The Sunday Telegraph about the "political bias" of campaigning groups. He was particularly indignant about the Howard League for Penal Reform, a charity, opposing his plan for a fixed bedtime for inmates of young offender institutions.

It’s always worrying when governments start saying they shouldn’t be criticised because they’re the government, and that any criticism of them is by definition politically motivated. This raises the spectre of the "elective dictatorship" described by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, in 1976, which can be the first step down the road to actual dictatorship.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, had the best response to Grayling when she advised him to be more grown-up and take it on the chin. "Democracy is founded on learning from debate," she said. "The Howard League will not be defamed by one party or purloined by another."

As for charities being stuffed with Labourites, the Telegraph said that "figures show" that 11 out of 25 special advisers in Gordon Brown’s Labour government are now working for charities or think tanks. This may well be the case and, if given the chance, a few no doubt take the opportunity to pursue politics by other means.

But charities are prohibited from having a party political purpose and the Charity Commission, among others, is very alert to this – as when, for example, the commission told the think tank Atlantic Bridge in 2010 to stop promoting the interests of the Conservative Party.

The fact that charities may have (non-political) purposes that lead them to promote policies or causes that do not chime with the preferences of the government of the day does not in itself make them political. The belief that anyone who is not with you is by definition against you is, in the end, a danger to democracy.

It has always been the case that Labour people will, in opposition, gravitate towards the voluntary sector. That is usually because they are interested in changing certain aspects of society, as are many charities and pressure groups. Out-of-office Conservatives are more likely to be found in the City, although there are plenty of them in charities too.

No doubt there will be plenty more of this kind of political cut and thrust before we reach next year's general election.

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